Over the past couple years, Michigan wine country has been whumped in the nads by Mother Nature, and it’s fair to say that deadbeat Father Nature has missed a few support payments too.
The winter of ’13-’14 was desperately long, idiotically cold and even the hardiest vines suffered primary bud damage. This is the the most prolific part of the plant, formed in the autumn and subject to whatever indignities the winter brings. Primary buds account for the bulk of the fruit in any given harvest, and in some areas, as many as 80% of them succumbed. Not only that, but the clusters produced from the dormant secondary buds were unusually weak.
Hybrid varieties like Vignoles and Seyval blanc fared reasonably well, but our vinifera vines took a huge hit.
Last winter was a bit more forgiving (though not much), but a late-May frost hammered both Leelanau and Old Mission and, adding insult to injury, a freakish hail storm in early August picked off hybrids grapes as readily as vinifera. Last I checked, full damage had not been entirely assessed.
About half the wines entered in the 2015 Michigan Wine Competition, judged in Lansing on August 11, were from the piss-poor 2014 vintage—the rest were either non-vintage, or draws from 2013. A handful of older wines speckled the playing field, but mostly bottomed out, with the exception of the Best of Class winner in the dry red slot—arguably the best wine I tasted in any category—Mari Vineyards 2012 Praefectus (Cabernet Franc).
Lesson learned: The judges do not seem to distinguish between above-average and aggressively awful vintages, which could be viewed as a plus or a minus. Either 2014 managed to produce a slew of decent wines after all, or the panel was handing out participation trophies.
First a word on participation trophies and second, a word on the judging parameters of the Michigan Wine Competition.
Harrison’s Horse Sense
James Harrison, the indomitable Steelers linebacker, made recent waves when he bombastically returned ‘participation trophies’ to his children’s grade school because he didn’t feel that the gridiron gamines deserved anything at all for simply trying their best.
In fact, he referred to participation trophies as ‘child abuse’.
James Harrison is not to be confused with Michigan author Jim Harrison, who received a participation trophy in grade school for being the only kid in class able to watch the clock and the blackboard at the same time. His wonk eye is the result of genuine child abuse, when, at age seven, somebody jammed a broken bottle in his face.
I’m not sure how I feel about the whole participation trophy thing; that’s why I segued into a bad Jim Harrison joke. Although I tend to believe that passing out awards where no awards are warranted is a little absurd, I’m also conscious that the number of grade school kids who will grow up to be NFL-quality linebackers like James Harrison is literally, one in a million. Tossing Johnny Wimpbucket a chintzy plastic cup for not skedaddling after the first drop-and-give-me-fifty is okay by me.
And take it from somebody who was never the best player on any team ever: Little Johnny Wimpbucket still knows exactly where he stands in term of competitive talent.
But, take it from me again, should he ever managed to lure a girl into his bedroom, the trophy will light up Johnny’s tchotchke shelf like a Roman candle, and likewise, any trophy bestowed for any reason puts a shine in any winery’s tasting room.
In fact, that’s the only reason that wine trophies exist.
The reason I say that hearkens back to a statement made by Finger Lakes winemaker Peter Bell, who has worn a robe and banged a gavel at the Michigan Wine Competition for the last decade: He called this year’s event a ‘once in a lifetime experience’—pointing out that every single wine in one flight of semi-dry white wines was awarded a gold medal by his panel.
Now, I love Peter Bell. I love Bell’s bellwether wines, leading the flock in Seneca Lake, and I respect his palate immensely, so ultimately, before writing this, I tracked him down and held his feet to the ethanol-fueled coals.
I suggested to him that every wine in a flight taking home a gold medal is like every runner in the 100 meter race coming in first. Not only is that not somatically possible, imagine an Olympic podium with no steps, but instead, fifteen identical blocks, each one reading ‘1’.
Those, my sardonic soulmates, are called ‘participation trophies’.
I won’t go into everything Bell said, but suffice to say that he had a lot of words to share about the nature of wine competitions themselves, the sort of wines that judges look for and the sorts of wines that are likely to win gold medals. They are not necessarily the most enologically intriguing entries, they are frequently wines in blonde wigs and makeup. When it’s medal time at the State Fair, subtle, remarkable, age-worthy wines are not necessary given the kudos that real wine folks think they’re worth.
Bell confirms that medals are often hung around wines with the broadest mass appeal, but having said that, he not only stands by his ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ declaration, he embellishes it:
“In ten years of judging Michigan’s competition, I see improvements in every aspect of technique, style and quality. This year was no exception.”
Sour Grapes? You Judge, Because I’m Not Allowed To…
Despite having written about Michigan wine for 25 years (mostly in glowing terms), despite having been the wine critic for Michigan’s largest newspaper, despite having published a book on Michigan wine last December and despite having judged many wine competitions in the past, I was not asked to be a part of this year’s Michigan Wine Competition’s judging panel.
Nor am I ever asked, nor am I ever likely to be. Not only am I never the bride, I am never even the bridesmaid. In fact, I’m lucky the Michigan Grape Council allows me to sweep up rice in the parking lot after the wedding.
Make of that what you will.
As always, the following assessment of the Best of Class winners may be different than one that prevailed in the judge’s opinion, or in yours if you’ve tried them, but I promise, it is an honest impression of the state of the art from somebody with respect for the art of the state:
Even so, the flag I’m obliged to wave is not the go-team-go pennant with the bipedal elk and moose and the slogan, ‘Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam Circumspice’, but the one that says,
“If You Seek a Wine Professional Without an Agenda, Circumspice.”
Sparkling: L. Mawby Tradition: A no-brainer. Larry Mawby knows more about producing sparkling wine in Northern Michigan than anyone else, which is why he makes most of them sold in everybody else’s winery. Though they won’t necessarily advertise it on the label, a Michigan champenoise competition is usually Mawby against Mawby versus Mawby facing an opponent who used to work for Mawby.
His ‘Tradition’ is all of that—the classic Chardonnay cépage, whole-cluster pressed to produce a lighter must low in phenolics and given a dosage of 1%, putting it in the Brut category.
It is clean, precise and beautiful.
Dry White: Boathouse Vineyards, ‘Dry Dock’ Riesling, 2013: Not a bad Riesling, but not a dry one either. I did no chemical analysis, but I’d be willing to bet beer money that this wine exceeds the sugar‐to‐acid ratio allowed for the category.
If so, is this cheating? Of course it is, but it happens all the time in such competitions. Most Rieslings in Northern Michigan have acid levels that can sear the epidermis off your epiglottis; when you pick below 20 brix, chaptalization is pretty much a given. Unlike California, in Michigan adding sugar to less-than-optimally ripe grapes is not only allowed, it’s often required.
The wine is delicate, succulently sweet, but ultimately too simple to wear the top crown at this level. Bryan Ulbrich’s runner-up (Double Gold), Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc 2014, is a superior wine by any standard a serious student of wine could dream up.
Semi-Dry White: Boathouse Vineyards Semi-Sweet Riesling, 2014: This one owns its sugar content, but it still isn’t enough to counteract the acids, which remain high enough to throw the wine off balance. Some peach and pleasant white grapefruit, but for the most part, too sharp to be really enjoyable.
My preference is Adam Satchwell’s Double Gold-winning Coup de Blanc 2013, 100% Vignoles, with a healthy 5% residual sugar that I’d guess is twice the concentration upon which Boathouse floats and better suits to offset a scorchingly low pH.
Dessert: 45 North Riesling Ice Wine, 2013: For a hundred dollars per half bottle, you expect some superb things inside, and this wine certainly delivers. The sheer nightmare—picking grapes in the middle of the night when it’s 9° outside—earns the winemaker combat pay. And it’s hard to find something not to like in this, or any, ice wine: Less honey/linseed oil notes that may develop in botrytis-based dessert wine, more intense apricot, candied peach and allspice.
No issue with the choice, and I’m also a big fan of Lee Lute’s 2013 A Capella, also pure Riesling, from Black Star Farms.
Fruit: Chateau de Leelanau Cherry Wine: I wonder if this category throws members of the judging panel for a loop; a lot of them are from elsewhere, and fruit wine is largely a Midwestern—and specifically, a cold-climate—thing.
Not only that, but cherry wine in particular is Northern Michigan slam dunk, thanks not only to a century of tart cherry production but to the Balaton cherry, which is to cherry wine what Cabernet Sauvignon is to red wine. And they don’t grow it everywhere. That said, the best cherry wine in Northern Michigan is made by Charlie Edson at Bel Lago, no question about it—Edson’s wine has a depth of character and a complex, nuanced personality that comes, in part, from a number of rare cherries that his his wife, a professor of plant breeding, grows exclusively. Bel Lago Cherry Wine really has no organoleptic rivals anywhere, but evidently, there are plenty of commercial rivals, and the fact that Charlie only took Silver for his au courant ambrosia leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth regarding the questionable taste in the judges’ mouths.
Semi-Dry Red: Karma Vista Vineyards, Devil’s Head Red, 2014: Do we seriously need a non-serious category in a serious wine competition? I mean, not only does nobody in Michigan make sweet red wine with the expectation of winning medals (I hope), but the ones that won medals here are so bad it’s embarrassing.
Case in point, gold medal recipient 12 Corners, Beach Cottage Red. Hand before Gitchee Gumee, I have—in all candor—added Fleishmann’s Instant Yeast to Welch’s grape juice, let it sit for a month and come up with a better product. Why? Because my prison-house pruno was not loaded with bitter, unripe grape tannins.
That’s the thing about sweet red wine in general: It’s made with grapes that are not good enough to make into dry red wine. Once you realize this, you can turn your substandard fruit into a respectable rosé, or you can go the passito route and raisinate the grapes to concentrate flavor and natural sugars, in which case you have to account for your time and labor and charge more for it. Or, you can throw a bunch of cheap beet sugar into the cauldron and sell it to vacationers for ten bucks. Guess which route is taken here?
The ‘Best of Class’ is clumsy, cloying and bitter at the finish. The rest are to the science of viniculture what a shirt made out of Danny DeVito’s back hair is to haute couture.
Too harsh? Well, at least we have finally landed with the star of the show—and not a moment too soon:
Dry Red: Mari Vineyards, ‘Praefectus’, 2012: The silliness ends with the Gladiator-sounding name; this is an intense and elegant wine, one of the meatiest Cabernet Francs yet to emerge from Northern Michigan. More than a feather in winemaker Sean O’Keefe’s cap, this is a pluma in his Spangenhelm—mulberry and cassis on a silken and perfumed nose, there are deep plum notes and hints of succulent spice and rose pastille shoring up a wine of impressive energy and balance.
A Final Cynical Note on the Judging Panel
In June, a letter went out from Michigan Wine Competition chairman Christopher Cook to all Michigan wineries, urging them to pony up $55 per wine to enter ‘the toughest competition you will ever enter because you’re being judged solely against your peers’.
But not by your peers.
In part, the letter read:
New to our judging panel this year:
Tony Aspler, wine writer for the Toronto Globe and Mail
John Buechsenstein, Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California
Ken Landis, consulting chef from California
Andrew Stover, Washington D.C.-based sommelier and wine writer
Dan Berger, wine writer and director of the Riverside International Competition and the Long Beach Grand Cru
Doug Frost, MS, MW, a Kansas City wine figure and director of the Jefferson Cup Invitational Competition
Ellen Landis, certified sommelier and California wine writer
Linda Murphy, British wine author Jancis Robinson’s North American wine writing partner
Dr. Richard Peterson, a great figure in California wine and an early winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards and others.
What do you notice about this hallowed checklist? Exactomundo: Not one of these judges is from Michigan.
It will always be a mystery to me why a competition that proudly seeks to showcase the very best of Michigan wines does not feel the need—even the obligation—to showcase the very best of Michigan wine talent. I can name half a dozen local palates as good or better than any of the above who’d love to add this honor to their resumé, and I guarantee you, so can Chris Cook.
I understand the competition’s attempt to infuse ‘gravitas’ in the event by bringing in a bunch of nattering Napa nabobs, but in the end, golds and double golds and Best of Classes will be awarded, so ultimately, where exactly is the puffery and prestige when a highbrow wine whiz flown in from California determines that the best Riesling in Michigan is… a Riesling from Michigan?
Not that there are not Michigan judges on the panel. There are, and some kick-ass ones, too. But in the Christopher Cook list, not one of them is highlighted.
In any case, that’s all for me. After dribbling and draggling through three dozen wines, I’m off to the pissoir where I, at least, intend to be judged by a jury of peers.